Talking About Race with K-5: Honoring Teachable Race Moments

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Border Crossers’ Educator Guides Issue 1

Talking About Race with K-5 Honoring Teachable Race Moments in Your Classroom

Bringing Classrooms Together for Social Change

Border Crossers’ Educator Guides Issue 1

Dear Educator, We warmly welcome you to the first issue of Border Crossers Educator Guide Series, Talking About Race With K-5: Honoring Teachable Race Moments in Your Classroom. This guide intends to provide hands-on strategies for teachers to better create a culture of dialogue about race in their classrooms, but it also intends to do something much bigger. We believe that by seizing opportunities to talk about race with young children, individual teachers interrupt patterns of structural racism and contribute to a more just and equitable future for their students—and all of us. When we look around New York City, we see that our schools do not represent the diversity that our city boasts, but are among the most segregated in the country.1 The racial and economic segregation of New York City schools perpetuates a vast disparity in educational opportunity and access to resources, but it also prevents students from developing relationships with peers from different backgrounds and the skills necessary to break down systems of inequity. School is always a place of learning, even when what is learned is not what we intend to teach. What are your students learning this year? For the past ten years, Border Crossers has provided programs that bring young students from segregated New York City neighborhoods together across borders of race and class with the idea of exploring issues of inequity, discrimination and social justice. We have had many successes over the years—relationships built between schools that are blocks away but miles apart, friendships formed between students from diverse backgrounds, an array of innovative curriculum and materials developed for use in the classroom—but we have


heard, over and over again, a common need arising from teachers’ experiences. The teachers sought more training in how to talk to elementary students about race. At times they were stumped by unexpected questions or silenced by uncomfortable incidents. Maybe you have been in a similar situation yourself. Border Crossers’ founder, Sachi Feris, always said, If you can’t talk about it, you can’t change it. It is in that spirit that we are launching this new series of workshops and resources explicitly designed to provide knowledge, training and tools for teachers to confidently engage in dialogue about race and racism in age-appropriate ways with elementary students. We hope that this guide helps you in your practice and inspires you in your potential as an educator. Welcome to the Border Crossers community! Sincerely,

Jaime-Jin Lewis Executive Director

Revital Heller Program Director

Talking About Race with K-5 Honoring Teachable Race Moments in Your Classroom

Introduction In the next few pages of this guide you will learn some strategies and guidelines for how to talk about race with students but first let us take a moment to explain why we must talk about race with students. American children live in a racialized world. They see the segregation of peers in the lunch room and playground, they see the segregation of the schools around them, they watch cultural stereotypes acted out on television, and they notice that their parents have mostly same-race friends. These early observations inform conclusions about race that they carry with them for the rest of their lives. Often times these conclusions are problematic. The famous “Doll Study” performed in 19402 and 20063 showed that young children of all races demonstrate a preference for lighter skin and associate darker skin with negative attributes. So what can we do about it? Studies show that explicit conversation can change young children’s opinions on race very quickly4. In the developmental period when children’s minds are forming their first conclusions about race, we need to ask them their opinions, listen to their ideas and speak to them honestly and humbly. Children give us many opportunities to have meaningful conversations about race. They ask questions, they use language inappropriately, they insert strange characters into their writing, they bear witness to our mistakes and challenge us to account for them. These teachable race moments happen often in our schools and teach a lesson every time, whether we address them or not. Let us take these opportunities given to us by our students and be willing to have open and explicit conversations about the complexity of their lived experiences. There is no one right way to do this because each teacher, each student, each classroom is different. Our goal is not to have the right answer. Our goal is to meet children where they are and use their own language to model what a healthy conversation about race looks like. What strategies can we use to better prepare ourselves for these teachable race moments?

Race What are we talking about when we talk about race? Race is a problematic word because it is both real and not real. That is, racial categories were constructed by people over time and are not biological realities but these racial categories matter enormously in the socio-historical experiences of groups and individuals.

Explicit Conversation Often when adults talk about race, we use non-specific and muted language. We say “diversity” or “equality” without explaining what that looks like and expect children to understand the subtext. It is more useful to use the language that children use, model new words, and use concrete examples instead of vague language.

Teachable Race Moments Teachable race moments are situations in which spontaneous classroom incidents raise issues of race or racism, and can be used as high-interest, personallyengaging opportunities for deeper learning.


Border Crossers’ Educator Guides Issue 1

Strategies Before the Moment Creating a Classroom Culture Equal Status Space In a diverse classroom, certain highly-structured activities can be used to ensure that the voices of all students are heard equally. 5 We call that equal status space. Go to for more games and activities that promote equal status space.

You can create a classroom culture that supports open conversations about race by creating an equal status space. Teach games and activities that allow students to share about their families and identities and use proactive strategies to increase the participation of all students. Start with yourself! Speak of yourself as a learner and a person who makes mistakes sometimes. Let your students hear you model open-minded thinking:  Go deeper, too. Spend some time writing and talking to friends about your own position in relation to your students and how you fit into their life beyond school.

You know, when I started reading this book to you, I thought it would be an accurate history of New York but now I am noticing that it’s missing some important things.

Don’t silence racetalk. Honor every comment or question about race as an exciting insight. It’s amazing the power of a simple: “Great question!” Remember, the goal is more teachable race moments.

Teachable Race Moment Scenario

The Peach Crayon Incident A white, male teacher is working on a self-portrait art activity with a group of Latino first graders. He purchased a box of “multicultural” crayons that were marketed as “representing an assortment of realistic skin tones.” One little girl asks the teacher to pass the lightest peach crayon saying, “Because I’m white,” even though her skin is among the darker in the class. How should he respond?


In the Moment Yikes! What do I do now?

What are some strategies that help you guide a teachable race moment? Get Personal • Notice your physical response, then exhale and relax your body. • Model thinking out loud:  • Be willing to apologize and take ownership of your actions. Even if your intention was good, consider the impact of your words and behaviors. • Empathize:  Take your time • Try saying:  Make sure to address it the next day— or later in the day, if possible. • Make time to talk in the moment:  • Silence is golden. Model thoughtful behavior.

When I hear you ask that question, my first response is... That made me uncomfortable. Did you feel it too? Let’s come back to this. It is really important and I need to think about it. Let’s talk about it.

Talking About Race with K-5 Honoring Teachable Race Moments in Your Classroom

Yes, and... • Affirm the child’s comment or question. Instead of saying, “Yes, but...” and pointing out the mistake in the child’s understanding of the world, consider that there may be a greater truth and respond as a learner of new ideas. • Use children’s own words. • Don’t fear the word “racist”—use it as a tool for dialogue. Teach the meaning of prejudice and discrimination, and use the words properly in class discussions. Jane’s Golden Questions Write these on post-its and put them on your desk! These questions are lifesavers. 

What do you mean? How do you know? What do you see that makes you say that?

After the Moment Now What?

Congratulations! You’ve taught a lesson about race. You’ve bravely gone where many teachers have never been. You have modeled that it is ok to problematize racial constructs and question the status quo! Now what? Work with colleagues! Find other like-minded teachers or administrators in your school and tell them about your teachable race moment. Ask them about their experiences with talking about race. Start a conversation among the staff. Gather resources and make them available to others. Use the teachable race moment as a starting point for a new curricular unit or lesson. Adapt an existing lesson to make it more anti-racist. Check out for an extensive collection of social justice lessons and activities. Roleplay with your students! Recreate the teachable race moment and have students act as the teacher. Act out scenarios from a book or story and have the students make a different choice than the protagonist. Educate yourself! Get involved in anti-racist organizations in New York City. Read books and articles. Attend professional development seminars. See the index at the end of this guide for more resources.

Helpful hints • Keep it simple • Take a step back • It’s ok to mess up

Prejudice and Discrimination According to Dr. Jane Bolgatz, “Prejudice is the generalized judgements, attitudes, thoughts and feelings we make or have about others without sufficient evidence to substantiate those opinions... Discrimination involves actions based on prejudice.”

Problematize To problematize is to examine deeper, to interrogate an idea, to deconstruct assumptions and to think critically about an accepted concept.

Anti-racism Anti-racism is more than being theoretically opposed to racism. Anti-racism is actively working to counteract and subvert patterns of structural racism. In schools, anti-racist educators find more equitable rules and procedures, revise and challenge curriculum, actively teach students about prejudice and discrimination, and build coalitions among colleagues.


Border Crossers’ Educator Guides Issue 1

Workshop The first workshop, “Talking About Race with K-5: An AntiRacist Workshop for Classroom Teachers,” was presented in a three-hour version for 20 diverse educators on Saturday, October 29, 2011 at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Teachable Race Moment Scenario

A Civil Rights Lesson It is small group reading time in a predominantly black second grade class. The children are reading about Martin Luther King Jr. and how he fought to end segregation. A student turns to her white, female teacher and exclaims, “Hey! That’s just like our school! Because we’re black and you’re white!” What should the teacher say?


The objectives of this workshop were for educators to… • Feel better prepared to have conversations about race with students; • Gain concrete “do tomorrow” ideas; • Form a support network with other like-minded educators; • Practice speaking about race and creating teachable race moments; and • Have resources to continue their own education about race issues.

Activities “Yes, and…” “Yes, and…” is a technique used in improvisational theatre that requires participants co-construct a scene where each new piece of information presented builds on a previous piece of information. We used this activity to practice useful techniques in talking about race and racism with students. When we say, “Yes, and…” we listen openly without trying to control the conversation and provide a right answer. Roleplays The only way to feel more confident in talking about race and racism with students is to practice by doing. The key to roleplaying scenarios of racetalk is to stay in character! It is much easier to talk about a difficult moment than to reenact it. Roleplaying enabled our teachers to practice using their own words in real life scenarios. It also allows participants to “freeze,” reflect on a moment, go back and try again.


Talking About Race with K-5 Honoring Teachable Race Moments in Your Classroom



of participants said they felt more prepared to turn racial incidents into “teachable race moments”


of participants said they gained concrete “do tomorrow” strategies for their classroom


said they felt connected to a new group of likeminded educators

Scale of 1-5 (average)

Preparedness to turn racial incidents into “teachable race moments” 5 4




2 1 When I got here, I felt prepared to respond to spontaneous moments of uncomfortable racetalk in the classroom.

Now, I feel prepared to respond to spontaneous moments of uncomfortable racetalk in the classroom.


The workshop was facilitated by Border Crossers Advisory Board member, Dr. Jane Bolgatz. Dr. Bolgatz is the author of Talking Race in the Classroom (Teachers College Press, 2005); a consultant with teachers, administrators, and parents on issues of diversity and equity in schools; and is an associate professor of Social Studies Teacher Education at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education in New York City. She teaches courses about the sociopolitical dimensions of education and is the chair of the Adolescence Teacher Education program. She received her Bachelor of Arts in History from Columbia University, her Master of Arts in Teaching from Brown University, and her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Iowa.


Border Crossers’ Educator Guides Issue 1

Get Involved Acknowledgements


Board of Directors Nadia Gomes, Co-Chair Alexis Rubin, Co-Chair Jane Bolgatz, Ph. D.* Lybra Clemons* Amanda Cortese Amy Ellenbogen Kevin Feinberg Sachi Feris Sherick Hughes, Ph.D.* Elizabeth Horton Lisa Kadin, J.D.* Megan McDonell Judy Mejia Pedro Noguera, Ph.D.* Rachelle Oribio Christopher Persley JoAnn Schneider Lori Taliaferro Kathy Tignor Seth Freed Wessler*


*Advisory Board member


Staff Jaime-Jin Lewis Executive Director Revital Heller Program Director Mallaigh McGinley Communications and Development Assistant Design and Layout Leyla Heckrotte Photography Deanna Destaffano


Though I know that asking questions to find out where kids’ thoughts are coming from, the role plays really showed how it could work. The most useful strategy was letting go of the feeling that I have to have all the answers to race questions, that I have to make these issues ok for my students. Its an important reminder that race is a conversation not a lecture and students need to feel empowered to examine their questions and find their own meanings and answers.

The most useful strategy was “Yes, and…”. I feel a lot of my conversations about race are quickly shut down or compared to other oppressions. I rarely get to delve into the topic in depth. It is necessary to validate others’ understanding and have an open and engaging conversation. It was exciting to learn that I can name racism explicitly in conversations with students and peers and be clear that that is what is being discussed. Most adults aren’t ready to talk about it explicitly. What do we do?

Online Bogatz, J. (2005). Talking Race in the Classroom. New York: Teachers College Press. Pollock, M. (Ed.). (2008). Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real About Race in School. New York: The New Press. Pollock, M. (2004). Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Singleton, G. E. & Linton, C. (2006). Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Works Cited 1 National Center for Education Statistics. (2008-09). Segregation and Exposure to High-Poverty Schools in Large Metropolitan Areas. Retrieved from 2 Clark, K.B., & Clark, M.P. (1947). Racial identification and preference in Negro children. In T.M. Newcomb & E.L. Hartley (Eds.), Reading in social psychology. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 3 Davis, K. (Director). (2006) A Girl Like Me [Motion picture]. USA: Reel Works Filmmaking. 4 Bigler, R. S., & Liben, L. S. (2007). Developmental intergroup theory: Explaining and reducing children’s social stereotyping and prejudice. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 162-166. 4 Vittrup, B. & Holden, G. W. (2010). Exploring the Impact of Educational Television and Parent–Child Discussions on Children’s Racial Attitudes. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy. doi: 10.1111/j.1530-2415.2010.01223.x 5 Cohen, E & Lotan, R. (1995). Producing Equal-Status Interaction in the Heterogeneous Classroom. American Educational Research Journal, 32, 99-120

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